Early on in his set, Hamilton Leithauser flashed that signature smirk: “My kid’s here tonight, so I have to spell out the title of this next one: ‘Dad is D-R-U-N-K.'”
I had been introduced to the little gal earlier that evening. She now sat beside her grandparents, clapping excitedly for her dad.
Said dad is the former frontman of The Walkmen. The indie rock band announced an indefinite hiatus in 2013 and its members ventured forth with solo efforts — Leithauser’s Black Hours (produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij), Walter Martin’s collection of children’s songs We’re All Young Together, and Peter Matthew Bauer’s Liberation! And last month, Leithauser and Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon released Dear God, a set of nine original songs plus covers of Tom Paxton, Will Oldham, the Everly Brothers, and V.F. Stewart.
Leithauser’s show at AMP, Strathmore’s new music venue a Metro hop just outside DC, was attended by a cross-section of area denizens — by my guess, there were approximately 200 in the audience (a notable turnout as Hurricane Joaquin bore down the east coast), split between younger fans of The Walkmen and older listeners drawn to the cool, 50s-era Sinatra-esque moodiness of Black Hours.
The set offered plenty for both demographics. And while the arrangements and cast shifted — sometimes the duo of Leithauser + Maroon, other times a full band including drummer (and Leithauser’s brother-in-law) Hugh McIntosh, Leithauser’s voice remained front and center. There’s an undeniable allure to that voice — a combination of grit and vulnerability, brash and disaffected, yet allowing the pathos to seep through the cracks of the bravado.
Rock stars grow up. Bands disband. And sometimes, their members keep making music, taking on new sonic identities. It’s not always easy for fans (fickle ingrates that we are) to embrace change, but in this case, Black Hours and Dear God provide plenty to love.
Where Black Hours showcases Leithauser’s stylistic flexibility, switching from the moody, theatrical “5 AM” to the rollicking “I Don’t Need Anyone,” to the jangly, marimba-brightened “11 O’Clock Friday Night,” Dear God dials back the instrumentation.
As Leithauser explained when he and Maroon played the 9:30 Club in May (opening for Lord Huron), Dear God is formed from the song ideas the two exchanged every few days over the course of fifteen years.
If you ever imagined being a fly on the wall as two musicians quietly sing, strum, and hunch over black ‘n white keys — here you have it, as beautifully intimate as you could dream.
Opening track “Proud Irene” is an “unsolicited lecture” delivered in the format of a contemplative piano ballad, the closeness of the stripped-down arrangement accentuated by the intimacy of the AMP venue itself. As Maroon’s fingers danced across the baby grand, Leithauser gripped the microphone in one hand and mic stand in the other, and with eyes screwed shut in concentration, offered up a textured croon as city lights glowed hazily through the rain. We all had goosebumps, and it wasn’t from the autumn chill.
If you’d care to join me for some reminiscing (a Walk(men) down memory lane) … I imagine the nascent assemblage, post-Jonathan Fire*Eater and post-Recoys, sitting in a Harlem studio, making music against the clank of subway trains outside the window. Space and time are slippery constructs, allowing countless stories to play out on parallel and intersecting tracks. Mine is not nearly so interesting, but I had just started school in NYC when The Walkmen fellas were putting together their debut album. My friends and I listened to “We’ve Been Had” and later, “The Rat,” on heavy rotation, accompanied by rhapsodic discourse over the songs — the latter’s frenzied perfection, the lyrics never quite catching up to the music; the former’s disaffected delivery, the saloon piano diced up by percussion, evoking the cacophony of the city we shared. And so those years passed — days spent buried in books, evenings spent seeking out a truth in music, music that mingled with the basso continuo of the city’s low, unceasing moan.
We grew older. We graduated; we moved away. I think part of us expected our favorite bands to somehow stay constant — islands in seas of change. But rock stars grow older too. Sometimes they get married and have kids. And sometimes those little kids come to dad’s shows.
Maybe we’re actually happy we’re older. And somehow it gets easier to laugh out loud.
I laughed that night at AMP when my friend, who raised her kids in the same Washington neighborhood as the Leithausers and the Martins, teased “Ham” about his teenage days babysitting her kids and distributing flyers around the neighborhood advertising his services as “The Lawnman.” And I laughed a few weeks prior, when Paul Maroon, delivering a copy of Dear God (the deluxe edition of the vinyl included in-person delivery by Leithauser in NYC and Maroon in DC), expressed utter surprise that the teenaged “Ham” would be a babysitter. (“Oh boy, I shudder to think!” continuing, “Of course, he’s always been very responsible. And he has kids now! But back then … ” trailing off with a fond smile.)
There’s something indescribably beautiful about reaching a point when you can retrace steps and share the journey with others. Maroon summarized the impetus behind Dear God in such lovely, unassuming terms: “We often still think of the songs in their original form, as initial musical ideas put down on tape and shuffled back and forth between us. With Dear God, we wanted to make a record of songs the way we initially hear them. ”
I used the word “intimate” earlier, and that word truly is apt here. Dear God was recorded and mixed by Leithauser + Maroon at their various homes in NYC, New Orleans, Baltimore, and DC. The songs feel undoctored, unfiltered, like you’re right there in the room with them. It’s sometimes lonely, sometimes playful. It’s a different way to hear two superlative musicians at their craft. And it’s wonderful.
AMP has a lot of promise as a music venue — it offers a civilized (but not stuffy) seated listening experience (hey, even I sometimes get tired of having beer sloshed all over me in a crowded club) in a contemporary, sleek setting — a more intimate version of The Hamilton, if you will (AMP holds 240 seated (though some shows will be standing-room, capacity 350), versus The Hamilton’s 550 (300 seated and 250 standing)). I’m looking forward to checking out more shows at AMP (music schedule here). Hope to see you there.